Intuition, perception, and emotion: A critical study of the prospects for contemporary ethical intuitionism


This thesis is a critical study of the prospects for contemporary accounts of ethical intuitionism. Ethical intuitionism is an epistemological theory about the nature of our justified ethical beliefs, whose central claim is that we have at least some non-inferentially justified beliefs. Having been out of favour for much of the latter-part of the twentieth century, ethical intuitionism is enjoying something of a renaissance. Contemporary proponents of the view have shown that ethical intuitionism need not fall foul of the main objections previously brought against it. Furthermore, developments in epistemology have helped to make the notion of non-inferential justification (and the associated view, epistemological foundationalism) more philosophically respectable. As I will suggest, non-inferentially justified belief paradigmatically involves a belief that is justified by a non-doxastic state. In this thesis I will consider four accounts of ethical intuitionism which each claim that a particular kind of non-doxastic state can ground justified ethical beliefs: understandings, intellectual seemings, perceptual experiences and emotional experiences. Note that contemporary ethical intuitionists do not commit themselves to there being a distinctively ethical non-doxastic state. Rather, contemporary ethical intuitionists adopt a sort of innocence by association strategy, suggesting that that we gain non-inferential justification in ethics in much the same way as we get non-inferential justification in other domains. It is my purpose in this thesis to subject each of these four accounts of contemporary ethical intuitionism to sustained philosophical criticism. Although I do not think that ethical intuitionism is implausible, it is my view that the current enthusiasm for the position ought to be seriously tempered, and that much work will need to be done in order to make it acceptable as a meta-ethical view. Firstly, with regard to the understanding (self-evidence) account I argue that there are serious problems with the view that the substantive Rossian principles are non-inferentially justifiably believed on the basis of an adequate understanding of their content. Secondly, I go on to suggest, inter alia, that proponents of the intellectual seemings account of intuitionism cannot appeal to their favoured general epistemological principle in order to ground their ethical epistemology. Given this, much work needs to be done on their part in order to show why we ought to think that intellectual seemings with an ethical content that is substantive get to justify. Thirdly, against the ethical perception account I suggest that even if it is true that ethical agents have perceptual experiences which represent ethical properties, it is not at all obvious that this supports ethical intuitionism, since insofar as such experiences get to justify, it seems plausible that they will ground inferentially or mediately justified beliefs. I do, however, suggest that a related perceptual view may be able to ground a plausible account of non-inferentially justified ethical beliefs. Finally, I consider the ethical emotions account. Given that this is a relatively new view on the philosophical scene I spend much of my time defending it against some serious recent objections brought against it. However, I will also suggest that there are question marks surrounding the epistemological credentials of emotional experiences and that much work will therefore need to be done in order to make the view that emotional experiences do in fact non-inferentially justify ethical beliefs acceptable

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